Israeli books: Five Selves explores five inner lives

Posted on March 12, 2015

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“…recommended to readers who enjoy interior prose and psychological literary fiction.” — from my review of Five Selves by Emanuela Barasch Rubinstein in New York Journal of Books. My additional remarks and excerpts from the book that appeared in a different and now defunct publication begin with the next paragraph.

Israeli books: Five Selves explores five inner lives

Five Selves, a book of five short stories and the first fiction book by Israeli humanities scholar Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein published last month by British publisher Holland House Books, explores the psyches of five characters, three of whom are nameless and female, while the two with names are male. Perhaps the three female protagonists represent different sides of the author, or maybe not.

In my New York Journal of Books review I recommend Five Selves “to readers who enjoy interior prose and psychological literary fiction.” All five characters are ill at ease in their social environments. Some seem to be temperamentally outside the mainstream, introverts in an even more extroverted society (Israel) than America, though the first one we meet is in mourning and the last is hospitalized after a traffic accident and suffering from amnesia, extreme conditions that tell us little of what they are normally like.

The first character has the most personal voice of the five and like the author is an academic who has lost her father. Going straight from the shiva to an overseas scholarly conference, in her bereavement she lacks the strength to shake loose her clingy, also mourning, misery-loves-company host and explore the foreign city on her own. Back in her hotel room she recalls her father in his final illness:

“Unconscious, surrounded by endless tubes, he seemed like a complete stranger, and it was impossible to recognize the man that he was. His vital, sharp expression was replaced by a deep coma, and my attempts to trace the familiar features were futile. It seemed to me that a terrible mistake was taking place here, and we were all gathered around the bed of another old man, a stranger, to witness his death. By his body you could tell he had reached a very old age—apparently he ate very little in his last years since he was skinny, and the tone of his face was grayish, almost silver, creating the notion that he was already in the process of passing to another world. Wrapped in a hospital robe, tubes and needles piercing his thin body, the dreary light of the hospital didn’t bother him at all, and he was entirely indifferent to the loud whistles of the machine inserting oxygen into his lungs.”

The characters in the other stories include a young woman who identifies more with her immigrant grandmother than with her Sabra mother, a rigidly neurotic teacher, and a boy who must overcome an irrational fear of dogs. The young woman and the teacher are old-school and at odds with their more modern peers, while the boy has a clearly defined disorder which he gradually learns to overcome in what is the most hopeful of the five stories.

But from the hopeful end of the penultimate story we are cast into the despair of the last one whose protagonist like the first character’s father lies helpless in a hospital room:

“If I could, I would escape from this place, abandon these oppressive lights lacking the slightest compassion, penetrating me, ignoring the pain they cause, attempting to illuminate without mercy what should be left in the dark. Even if they can be endured for a minute, this beam of light leaves me breathless, suffocated by a desire to throw myself into the darkness.”

For a fuller discussion of Five Selves see my NYJB review.

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